A significant number of whites are becoming more aware of racism today, a fact often overlooked in this time of rising white supremacy. In the mid-1990s, some 70 percent of whites denied that racism was a serious problem in the United States. In 2018, a Gallup poll found that 45 percent of whites think that race relations between blacks and whites are somewhat bad or very bad; 56 percent of whites said that racism against blacks is widespread in the U.S.; 45 percent of whites believed that blacks are treated unfairly by the police; and 48 percent of whites said that there are not equal job opportunities for racial minorities in the United States today
This growing white acknowledgement of racism is the result of many determined campaigns led by people of color (and some whites). From Obama’s campaigns to Black Lives Matter, evidence of racism and protests against is now never-ending, from the Russian plot to disrupt the 2016 elections to Republican Party racial gerrymandering, to the racism of the criminal justice system, school segregation, and inequality of access to jobs and housing. The recent commemorations of the beginning of slavery 400 years ago prompted a broad reassessment of American history, with even the New York Times editorial board stating that American democracy and the American economy have always been racialized, a position held by only the most radical among us a few short years ago. Paradoxically, the willingness of tens of millions of whites to support an openly racist President solidified many other whites’ understanding that societal racism is alive and well.
“Today, the question for many ‘woke’ whites is no longer whether racism exists; the question now is what they will do about it.”
Unfortunately, many whites seem to be having a lot of difficulty answering this question. Certainly, anti-racist movements, backed by a generation of work by academics and public intellectuals, have insured that “woke” whites are aware that all whites are privileged by structural racism. But the problem is that this knowledge alone does not produce change. Many whites who are barely holding onto their middle-class status may well decide that there is nothing they can do because they can ill afford to surrender any opportunity they have, privileged or no. As a result, ‘woke’ whites often feel paralyzing guilt.
These paralyzing tendencies are, unfortunately, often re-enforced by ‘white studies.’ A host of books, articles and documentaries have appeared, explaining and decrying white rage and white fragility, and seeking to explain why so many whites are willing to vote for and advocate for policies that are completely destructive to their class, gender, etc. interests. But, as Lauren Jackson recently wrote in Slate, the problem with white studies is that it is inward turning: the subject is white people, and the solution offered is for white people to heal themselves. LINK
The urging that whites turn inward to “heal themselves” through endless discussions with other white people produces a toxic stew of guilt and impotence. Furthermore, many people of color are quite appropriately growing weary of being looked to as the experts on racism, or as the saviors of white liberals, or too often being the only people who show up to take action against racism, and are wondering aloud why whites can’t figure out what’s going on and what to do about it.
So, what can whites who understand that racism is real and white supremacy must end do to become effective actors against it?
I believe the starting point for whites to take action is this: they must understand that racism damages everyone, including white people. There can be no doubt that racism has produced economic, political and social privileges that have benefitted all whites. But what is often missed by those who grasp white supremacy is that whites pay a dear price for their privileges. The recognition that racism harms whites may just be what is needed to propel them into action, not just to pay reparations to people of color for their privileges, but literally to save their own souls.
“Racism damages everyone, including white people”
The recognition that racism does damage to whites is not new. W.E.B. DuBois wrote about this in 1910, observing that colonial claims of the racial superiority of white civilization were built on ‘feet of clay.’ DuBois argued that when a civilization justifies the appropriation of the wealth and culture of the entire world on the basis of its racial superiority, those who participate in that appropriation deeply feel their own inauthenticity, the falseness of their own claims. In order to maintain their privileges, whites must believe that the people they oppress cannot see the pretenses of racists for what they are. As a result, DuBois notes, it is when people of color assert their own humanity that whites become the most violent, because otherwise white people would have to acknowledge their own inhumanity. Martin Luther King also decried the false sense of superiority that racism imparted to whites, arguing that the belief that people of color were not equal human beings strips racist whites of their capacity to love—not only the non-white majority of the world, but also themselves.
White people are damaged by the fallacious belief that they are the only real human beings, (or, the belief that America is a white country, or the belief that saying that Black lives matter is somehow a threat to whites, etc.). In reality, the United States has always been a multi-racial society. There was never a time when enslaved people (or Native Americans) completely lost their personhood, despite racists’ best efforts. Throughout American history, racially oppressed people always had their own lives, their own loves, their own agency. And, usually in secret, there were always some white people who refused to dehumanize these people, and at risk to their lives, were accepted into black and other communities of color.
Racism seeks to erases these realities. Racists must deny the ways that people outside Europe were and are effective agents of their own destinies, living, and loving and building civilizations. Within the world that racism created and continues to create, whites live out an enormous lie, one that is continually challenged by the very existence of over 80 percent of humanity. In pursuit of white privilege and a false sense of their own superiority, whites voluntarily strip themselves of all their own national ethnic cultures and communities, leaving them no choice but to find meaning in bourgeois pursuits of wealth, power and status.
Worst of all, whiteness leaves many whites—especially middle- and upper-class whites—without a deep connection to a historically grounded loving community, to a sense of soulfulness. In this sense, DuBois’ effort to describe the ‘souls of white folks ‘was misplaced: whiteness renders people soul-less. (Indeed, in a rare moment of insight in her guilt-ridden and hand-wringing documentary about white privilege, Chelsea Handler says to the family of her Black teenage boyfriend, “Hanging out with you guys was the most soul I ever had in my life.”)
The understanding that racism radically distorts and undermines white peoples’ humanity and capacity for love is different from the Marxist argument that racism harms white workers by depriving them of the material benefits that would be theirs if they acted in class solidarity with workers of color. The Marxist position asks whites to believe that they would benefit from a working class solidarity that very few people in the United States see or experience. Marxists ask whites to give up the racial benefits they see very tangibly in their lives for class benefits that are far too abstract to be believable, let alone the basis for action. At this moment, when whites are becoming aware of structural racism but not yet racial capitalism, I believe the humanitarian/spiritual costs of whiteness have far more salience than Marxism for most people. This is not to say that white workers will not benefit from working class solidarity at some point. It is just to say that this moment is not yet one in which most whites will be receptive to that argument.
If racism harms whites (albeit in very different ways from people of color), then whites certainly have an interest in opposing racism that goes beyond guilt for their privileges. Indeed, since racism harms whites, then whites have every bit as much reason to oppose racism as anyone else. That is, white anti-racism must go beyond guilt-ridden support for the struggles of people of color and must include the struggle of white people for their own humanity, their own souls.
As Dr. King repeatedly told us, anti-racist struggles are more than fights against white supremacy and racial privilege. They must be about building relationships between people who, by opposing racism, learn to transcend race. The goal of anti-racist work is to build a new society by developing new social relationships between people now divided by racism. This is what Martin Luther King meant by the beloved community as the true meaning of social justice.
The work of anti-racist whites, then, is no different than that of anyone else: it is to absolutely and consistently oppose every manifestation of racism with everyone who is willing to undertake the work. As they do so, whites can transform themselves through their anti-racist practice and the relationships with people of color they forge in that context.
In so doing so, of course, whites face particular challenges and have particular opportunities. First, white anti-racists must recognize that they do have white privileges. But instead of feeling paralyzed by this reality, whites should utilize their privileges for all they are worth to oppose the system that created them. In doing so, whites will learn that by working against their privileges, they can build a far more rewarding society. Anti-racist whites must also be willing to disrupt white spaces, engaging in courageous conversations with their white co-workers, their white friends, their white neighbors, and even their own white families–conversations that, often, only whites are able to initiate, but must eventually (very soon) include people of color. White anti-racists must also learn to respect, support and defend people of color’s needs for their own spaces to build community and, frankly, to be safe for a while in the face of unrelenting racism.
But most importantly, white anti-racists need to show up to do the many hard and sometimes dangerous things that are needed to oppose racism today. In doing this work, whites will discover an important truth: they will gradually begin to transform their own consciousness and ways of relating to people of color through multi-racial efforts, and as they do so, many people of color will accept them not as whites, but as fellow human beings pre-figuring a new society.
The task for whites who claim to be ‘woke’ is simple: just show up and stand shoulder to shoulder with everyone else willing to combat racism. It is through this simple but essential practice that white people will begin heal from the terrible wounds racism has inflicted on them, and will finally find their souls in a world without whiteness.